The Tatami Galaxy by Tomihiko Morimi

I am a huge fan of certain narratives from countries that tend to tell different stories than the tired tropes and structures of our western sensibilities. When artists can experiment with new structures and forms, I find that I gain a lot of insight as a writer into how to add new scope and sequence to my own work. Murakami is a master at this, engaging and fun with a splash of pop culture and a structure that sometimes makes no sense until the end when it becomes clear what his goals were in the story itself. Same goes for Ghibli films, in fact, the term ‘spirited away’ even shows up in this text. It becomes easy to consume Japanese art to awaken to the off-kilter world of another culture with a completely new way to approach a story. 

I picked up an ARC of Tatami Galaxy by Tomihiko Morimi without knowing anything about it – and about three-quarters of the way through I found out that it was based on a relatively popular anime series that this was a novelization of, which made me realize that this could go either way. I must admit, I enjoyed reading it, but the big conceit wasn’t entirely clear until three-quarters of the way, and it seemed haphazardly thrown into a narrative t hat confusingly used episodic repetition as a conceit throughout. There, a strange tesseract-ish system is uncovered in the center in eighty days of the mundane early college life of our nameless, bearded protagonist that is almost an excuse for all the repetition. Not quite Interstellar, not quite Memento, not quite House of Leaves, this left a lot to be desired and almost felt like it was written first with the need to go back and fill in the blanks. Those blanks were filled in with some school-age nonsense that would have been fine on its own were it not for the repetition that made me confused about whether I was making any progress (and reading it on my kindle as opposed to a physical copy somehow made that confusion worse). This confusion wasn’t charming or felt like it had a purpose, but just served as a gatekeeper for the real point, here. It isn’t a slice of life entirely, it isn’t science fiction entirely, it had some boisterous lines that didn’t earn their merit, and overall, it was bleh. I can see what it could have been, and perhaps that’s where the disappointment was. Was it because of the translation? Maybe the story could be redeemed in the original execution… 

So, I decided I would take the BluRays out of the library to see how that went – maybe it just didn’t translate from the screen to the page (and why would it?). I also took out another box set of another one I was dragging my feet on, Social Experiments Lain. This may have colored my opinion overall, so take it for what it is. 

I thought the film version of the story to be a lot easier to follow in the scope of the type of story it is. Rather than thinking I was accidentally rereading portions of the book that I had already drunkenly read, then missed, and then forgot about for some reason, the visual aspect of the story made for a much more reasonable representation of the repetition of the story that put a lot less on the reader to figure out what is going on. A splash of color here, some psychedelic animation there, and all of a sudden, the dialogue isn’t so much driving a repetitive and misleading paragraph. The story is much more suited to the visual language of film and animation, and in a way, is best preserved in that format under the talented hands of the producers of the original program.  

The book kept my attention, but the television series engaged me. It may have been the execution, it may have been the translation, whatever the case, it makes for a better work of art in its original format. Perhaps it should have stayed that way – as the text so eloquently puts it, “…you probably don’t want to pour your time down the drain reading such detestable drivel, anyhow.” 

—–UPDATE 2/10/23—–

I had a great online conversation with the translator of the novel, Emily Balistrieri, which already requires several updates to the review I posted – and some of my comments and observations were pretty off. First, the novel predated the television show by quite some time (I immediately went to Wikipedia and realized what a mistake that was) and it was just a matter of the wording of some of the pre-release copy I read that somehow convinced me it was the other way around. The other interesting aspect of the conversation was how accurately (and difficult the process of) the translation was interpreted. The translator insisted that they had worked really hard on translating a relatively repetitive and spiraling original text – and yes, the episodic nature and wording of the repetitive portions make for a text that is what it is, a challengingly repetitive and episodic novel. My review remains the same in terms of my opinion, but I wanted to clarify that I was definitely wrong on the order of production and the translator maybe being at fault for what was essentially a word-for-word and paragraph-for-paragraph repetitive novel that they translated almost as-is that kept these elements that I didn’t think work editorially in tact.

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